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April 2001
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CHARM, GRACE AND DIGNITY



Sidney Poitier


Born: Sidney Poitier, Miami, Florida, February 20, 1927
Spouse/Dating: Married Juanita Hardy Poitier Davis, dancer, on April 29, 1950; divorced in 1965. Dated Diahann Carroll, actor, singer. Married: Joanna Shimkus, actor, on January 23, 1976.
Family: Father, Reginald James Poitier; Mother: Evelyn Poitier (both tomato farmers from Cat Island in the Bahamas). Siblings: Poitier was the youngest of eight children. (Brother, Cyril Poitier, Born 1911, died November 13, 1991 of cancer; oldest brother; helped raise Sidney; had bit roles in Poitier's movies "Uptown Saturday Night," "Let's Do it Again," and "A Piece of the Action.") Daughter: Beverly Poitier, born in 1951, mother, Juanita Hardy. Daughter: Pamela Poitier, born in 1952, mother, Juanita Hardy. Daughter: Sherri Poitier, born in 1953; mother, Juanita Hardy. Daughter: Gina Poitier, actor, mother, Juanita Hardy. Daughter: Anika Poitier, actor, born in 1972, mother, Joanna Shimkus. Daughter: Sydney Tamiia Poitier, actor, mother, Joanna Shimkus (acted with father in Showtime movie "Free of Eden")
Education: Dropped out of school at age 13 (date approximate). Only a year and a half of formal schooling from age 11 to 13. Trained for the stage with Paul Mann and Lloyd Richards. Studied with the American Negro Theater.
Sign: Pisces
Affiliations: Founding trustee and first vice chairperson, American Film Institute. Board of Trustees, American Museum of the Moving Image. With duel U.S. and Bahamian citizenship, he is the Bahamian Ambassador to Japan.



Awards Include:
>2000: Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. 36th recipient of award.
>1999: NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Television Movie for "The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn"
>1995: Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award
>1994: National Board of Review Career Achievement Award
>1992: American Film Institute Life Achievement Award
>1982: Cecil B DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
>1968: Golden Globe Award for World Film Favorite-Male
>1968: San Sebastian Film Festival Best Actor Award for "For the Love of Ivy"
>1968: NATO Star of the Year Award. Presented by the National Association of Theater Owners.
>1963: Golden Globe Award for Best Actor-Drama for "Lillies of the Field"
>1963: Berlin Film Festival Best Actor Award for "Lilies of the Field"
>1963: Oscar for Best Actor for "Lilies of the Field"
>1958: Venice Film Festival Georgio Cini Award for "Something of Value"
>1958: Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear for "The Defiant Ones"
>1958: New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor for "The Defiant Ones"
>1958: British Film Academy Award for Best Foreign Actor for "The Defiant Ones"



Film/Acting Credits Include:
>2001: Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey …. Narrator
>2001: Last Brickmaker in America, The …. (TV)
>2001: 32nd NAACP Image Awards …. Himself (TV)
>2000: Sidney Poitier: One Bright Light …. Himself (TV)
>1997: The Jackal …. Carter Preston
>1999: The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn …. Noah Dearborn (TV)
>1999: Free of Eden …. Will Cleamons (executive producer) (TV)
>1998: David and Lisa …. Dr. Jack Miller (TV)
>1997: Mandela and de Klerk …. Nelson Mandela (TV)
>1996: To Sir with Love 2 …. Mark Thackeray (TV)
>1995: Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick …. Himself
>1995: A Good Day to Die …. Gypsy Smith (TV)
>1994: Century of Cinema, A …. Himself
>1994: Century of Cinema, A …. Himself (TV)
>1992: Sneakers …. Donald Crease
>1992: Salute to Sidney Poitier, A …. Himself (TV)
>1991: Separate But Equal …. Thurgood Marshall (TV)
>1990: Ghost Dad .… (Director)
>1988: Little Nikita …. Roy Parmenter
>1988: Shoot to Kill …. Warren Stantin
>1984: Fast Forward .… (Director)
>1982: Hanky Panky .… (Director)
>1980: Stir Crazy .… (Director)
>1979: Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist …. Narrator (TV)
>1977: Piece of the Action .… (Manny/Director)
>1975: Let's Do It Again …. Clyde Williams
>1975: The Wilby Conspiracy …. Shack Twala
>1975: Let's Do It Again .… (Director)
>1974: Uptown Saturday Night …. Steve Jackson
>1974: Uptown Saturday Night .… (Director)
>1973: Warm December, A …. Matt Younger
>1973: Warm December, A .… (Director)
>1972: Buck and the Preacher … (Buck/Director)
>1971: The Organization …. Lieutenant Virgil Tibbs
>1970: Brother John …. John Kane
>1970: They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! …. Lieutenant Virgil Tibbs
>1970: King: A Filmed Record, Montgomery to Memphis …. Narrator (TV)
>1969: The Lost Man …. Jason Higgs
>1968: For Love of Ivy …. Jack Parks
>1967: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner …. John Prentice
>1967: In the Heat of the Night …. Virgil Tibbs
>1966: Duel at Diablo …. Toller
>1965: To Sir, With Love …. Mark Thackeray
>1965: Bedford Incident …. Ben Munceford
>1965: The Greatest Story Ever Told …. Simon of Cyrene
>1965: A Patch of Blue …. Gordon Ralfe
>1965: The Slender Thread …. Alan Newell
>1964: Long Ships, The …. Aly Mansuh
>1963: Lilies of the Field …. Homer Smith
>1962: Pressure Point …. Doctor
>1961: Paris Blues …. Eddie Cook
>1961: A Raisin in the Sun …. Walter Lee Younger
>1960: All the Young Men …. Towler
>1959: Porgy & Bess …. Porgy
>1959: Virgin Island …. Marcus
>1958: The Defiant Ones …. Noah Cullen
>1958: Virgin Island …. Marcus
>1957: Band of Angels …. Rau-Rau
>1957: Edge of the City …. Tommy Tyler
>1957: The Mark of the Hawk …. Obam
>1957: Something of Value …. Kimani
>1956: Good-bye, My Lady …. Gates
>1955: Blackboard Jungle …. Gregory W. Miller
>1954: Go, Man, Go! …. Inman Jackson
>1952: Red Ball Express …. Corporal Andrew Robertson

(cont. next column) >


Sidney Poitier
(cont.)

>1951: Cry the Beloved Country …. Reverend Msimangu
>1950: No Way Out …. Doctor Luther Brooks
>1949: From Whence Cometh My Help


Profile:

   Sidney Poitier was born in Miami, Florida during a mainland visit by his parents. They were there to sell tomatoes grown on their tomato farm in The Bahamas, British West Indies. Poitier weighed in at a meager 3 pounds and his heartbroken father, fearing his son wasn't going to make it, went looking for a shoe box to bury the child in. After a few days it became apparent that the shoe box wouldn't be necessary and the family traveled back to their tomato farm on Cat Island, a spit of land just 46 miles long and three miles wide.
   Life growing up on his parent's tomato farm in the Bahamas was spartan. Each of the children had assigned chores and while his four brothers and two sisters did theirs, young Poitier's job was to haul fresh water 200 yards to the house every day. The first 101/2 years of Poitier's life were lived on Cat Island without running water, electricity or automobiles. "Life was lived very close to the edge in terms of survival," he recalls. "It was a land unspoiled by capitalism. We lived off the land - wore cloth sacks."
   It was a humble beginning but Poitier says it instilled in him the value of participation and responsibility - values by which he's tried to conduct his entire life.
   In 1936, the state of Florida embargoed tomatoes grown in the Bahamas to protect domestic markets. The following year, with the family income in jeopardy, Poitier and his mother set off to look for work in Nassau while his father continued to work the farm.
   There was work in Nassau, but the move also introduced a 13 year old Poitier to racism. He was walking up West Bay Street when he noticed an older white teenager bicycling towards him. Growing up on Cat Island as part of the majority population, Poitier was unfamiliar with unprovoked racial aggression and just continued walking, even though the boy had steered his bicycle right towards him. "He rode up," Poitier said, "and as he got abreast of me he took his right hand off the handlebar and punched me in the face. Boom!" It was a hard lesson, but just the first of many yet to come.
   At 15, he was sent to live with his older brother in Miami by his father. But he hadn't been there long when he ran up against the racial hatred of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan decided to make Poitier a target for their violence after the young man mistakenly delivered a package to the front door — instead of the back — of a white woman's residence. In addition to racial discrimination from whites, he also faced discrimination from people of color because of his thick Bahamian accent.
   With all the trouble in Florida, Poitier fled to New York. At 16 he arrived in New York with $3.00 in his pocket. To try and keep body and soul together Poitier worked as a dishwasher, busboy and at a succession of odd jobs. The work, and income, were unsteady and he often slept in bus station pay toilet stalls because he didn't have the money to stay anywhere else. Things had to change.
   It was WWII and without many other options, Poitier joined the army. He served in the army as a physiotherapist for a little over a year. After his military commitment, he returned to Harlem and landed an all too familiar job as a dishwasher. He was 18 and looking for a second job when he decided to try out at an open audition with Harlem's American Negro Theater company. Poitier had seen a western in the Bahamas as a child and recalled being amazed that a whole herd of cattle could fit behind the screen. After the movie, Poitier remembered waiting outside the theatre for the cowboys and animals to leave the building. The film so impressed him that he decided he wanted to be a movie cowboy when he grew up. But any hope of stardom ended in humiliation when the audition director suggested he could put his lack of talent, and thick Caribbean accent, to better use as a dishwasher.
   Poitier was young, barely education, but determined to overcome his embarrassment and somehow make it onto the stage. He began to spend countless hours listening to the radio and practicing the rhythms of his speech to rid himself of his Caribbean accent. He also began an intense process of self-education by reading everything he could get his hands on. To learn acting, he volunteered as a janitor at the American Negro Theater in exchange for acting lessons. The Harlem company was the training ground for actors like Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis and Isabel Sanford and Poitier knew he could learn to act there, if he could just get accepted.
   His second audition, six months later, proved to be an entirely different experience. This time he was accepted by the company. Later that same year Poitier made his stage debut in the student production of "Days of Our Youth" as Harry Belafonte's understudy. He made his Broadway debut the next year as understudy for all of the male roles in the American Negro Theater's all-black production of Aristophanes' "Lysistrata." The following year (1947) Poitier starred in the Broadway production of "Anna Lucasta." He felt he was truly on his way up in show business. He was right, but it would be a slow rise to the top.
   Poitier continued to act with the American Negro Theater and in 1949, he made his film debut in, of all things, the Army Signal Corps documentary short, "From Whence Cometh My Help." The next year he made his film feature debut (along with Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis) in Joseph L Mankiewicz's "No Way Out" opposite actor Richard Widmark. Set against the background of race riots, he played a doctor whose passion for justice forces him to make tormenting personal decisions.
   From the very beginning of his film career, Poitier was careful in his selection of film projects, refusing to accept roles that he felt detracted from his dignity as a human being, but taking advantage of chances to perform in projects that fit his personal and moral criteria. He wanted roles that were educated and intelligent, not the subservient buffoon characters Hollywood had forced on blacks in the past. But his high standards made his career grow slowly.
   With only one or two exceptions in more than 50 movies Poitier says, "I never played a part that I felt did not complement the values by which I conducted my life. That was not easy," he says. "That was very difficult because I had no power. The only power I had was the power to say no, which I did as often as was necessary."
   For the next few years he was only able to accept smaller roles rather than compromise his principles but it didn't diminish his performances. He gave audiences a memorable portrayal of a preacher in "Cry, the Beloved Country" (1952). But it would be five long years after "No Way Out" until his next real breakthrough role. In 1955, Poitier once again caught everyone's attention as a troubled youth in the "Blackboard Jungle." He had to wait two more years but he did it again as John Cassavetes' friend in Martin Ritt's "Edge of the City" (1957). Another two years went by, but then he achieved international recognition for his Oscar-nominated work in "The Defiant Ones" (1958) along with fellow Oscar-nominee Tony Curtis. It was the first time a black male performer received an Oscar nomination.
   In 1959 he returned to Broadway in Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun." He would later reprise the role for the big screen in 1961. It was the first Broadway play written by a black woman

(cont. next column) >


Sidney Poitier
(cont.)

and first Broadway show directed by a black man (Lloyd Richards).
   The next few years brought a string of critical and box office successes which ran the gamut from musicals to comedies to intense thrillers. It was a busy time in his life. In 1965 he fell in love with blind white girl in "A Patch of Blue." In 1967 he starred in three hit movies: "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (which featured the first interracial kiss in U.S. screen history), "To Sir, With Love" and "In the Heat of the Night," (the racially-charged film which debuted his highly regarded character Detective Virgil Tibbs). In 1968 he made his stage directing debut with Broadway production of "Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights." In 1968 he wrote the original story for the film "For Love of Ivy" in which he also starred. Besides making films, he also helped form "First Artists" production company with Paul Newman, Barbara Streisand and others in 1969.
   But it was 1963 that stood out as the milestone year for this black actor. It was the year he took the film world and Hollywood by storm with his touching, brilliant portrayal of handyman Homer Smith who reluctantly builds an adobe chapel for a group of German nuns in the screen gem "Lilies of the Fields." And Poitier's performance did not go unnoticed by his peers. He became the first black man in history to win the Oscar for Best Actor. With his ever increasing popularity and fame, Poitier was rated the Number 7 top money-making star in 1967 and Number 1 in 1968.
   Poitier's growing international popularity and mainstream authority figure roles such as doctors, police officers and teachers played during the late 50s and 60s helped pave the way for the commercial success of black cinema and strong black roles that followed in the early 70s. His work opened the doors for less stereotypical screen roles for those black actors who came after him.
   He told the New York Times in 1989, "During the period when I was the only person here—no Bill Cosby, no Eddie Murphy, no Denzel Washington—I was carrying the hopes and aspirations of an entire people. I had to satisfy the action fans, the romantic fans, the intellectual fans. It was a terrific burden." But his "burden" did pave the way for the Cosbys, Murphys, and Washingtons, and is why he is often referred to as the Jackie Robinson of film.
   The Robinson comparison makes him uncomfortable. "It makes me feel a little bit strange," he says, "because there is only one Jackie Robinson. And I knew him. And I always looked up to him as bigger than life, you know. What he endured, it would take 1,000 men to be able to absorb. I wish I had enough ego to say, "I feel good about somebody saying I was like Jackie Robinson,' but I don't have that much ego, I can tell you that."
   Though race has been an element in many of Poitier's films, he made a point of establishing himself as an actor first and a black man second. But after he made "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967), which involved the first interracial kiss in screen history, he was criticized by some members of the black community for taking on roles which they complained were unfashionably focused on integration. The popular denunciation of Poitier lasted throughout the late 60s and 70s. Black nationalist H Rap Brown called his film roles 'Uncle Tom' characterizations and Poitier was denounced in Amiri Baraka's 1978 play, "Sidney Poetical Heroical." It was a cruel satire that ridiculed the actor's racial stand. Today, many people feel all the criticism was not just unwarranted, it was unjustified.
   Charles Dumas, who starred in "Separate But Equal" with Poitier, defends his friend by saying Poitier, "pushed the envelope whenever he could to expand the world for black actors."
   In his own defense Poitier said, "The attitude of the characters I played, they were fundamentally good people. And the intent was, on my part, and I suspect on the part of some of the filmmakers, was to raise the question, 'What's wrong with this person, other than the claim of color?'"
   Over the years, Poitier also appeared before several congressional committees investigating discrimination in filmmaking, and ever since he started in film making, he has refused to work on movies that do not employ or help to increase black talent in the business.
   "My own struggles in my career with racism" Poitier once said, "is not so much my career, but my life. Racism is very painful. That's life. It never ends." He points to the careers of Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, James Earl Jones and others as "clear evidence" of how Hollywood has changed since his arrival. "There's been a bushel of change," he admits, "(but) certainly we're not home yet. We still have a way to go."
   Rod Steiger, who co-starred with Poitier in "In the Heat of the Night" often spoke out on behalf of his friend and the serious risks he took with regard to race and film making.
   "Up until then," Steiger said at a Long Island, New York film seminar in the summer of 1998, "you just didn't get that kind of exchange between black and white actors. The races in cinema, much as in real life, didn't mix. 'In the Heat of the Night' wasn't just risky cinema: it was a revolution. Suddenly, police brutality, government crackdowns, the civil rights movement - they were all thrown into the American consciousness. Hell, the South hated the film so much it was banned down there."
   Those who only think of Poitier as an actor need to think again. He is also a well known director. His first stint as director was on Broadway with "Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights" (1968). This second career continued with feature films that included "Buck and the Preacher" (1972), "A Warm December" (1973) the hit "Uptown Saturday Night" (1974), and the box office success "Stir Crazy" (1980) which paired Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. It was a film he also wrote. As a pioneer in the business, he directed his first film five years before Spike Lee started his own directing efforts.
   In 1977, Poitier decided to take a break from acting after filming "Piece of the Action," which co-starred Harry Belafonte and Bill Cosby. His goal was to spend more time with his family and work on his autobiography, "This Life," which was published in 1980. He returned to acting in 1988 with "Shoot to Kill" which he followed the same year with "Little Nikita" and the 1992 comedy-suspense hit "Sneakers" with Robert Redford.
   But Poitier is even more than an actor, director, and writer. In 1997, he became ambassador to Japan for the Bahamas (he has dual citizenship with the United States and the Bahamas). While his duties don't require that he live in Japan, he did attended his official ambassadorial welcoming ceremony that took place at the Imperial Palace, officiated by Emperor Akihito, himself.
   When asked what he's up to these days, Poitier says he hasn't hung up his movie cowboy spurs yet with regard to film making, but adds that recently, "I have been writing. I have been living. When you get to be as old as I am, you become very possessive of your most important asset, which is your time."
   Poitier has lived his on-screen and off-screen lives with charm, grace, and dignity. Dr. Martin Luther King paid tribute to this great actor by saying, "He is a man of great depth, a man of great social concern, a man who is dedicated to human rights and freedom. Here is a man who, in the words we so often hear now, is a soul brother."
   High praise. And well deserved.